As travelers we’re drawn to certain things; the vast, beautiful expanses of rugged mountain ranges, serene secluded beaches, the ruins left by ancient civilizations and the world-changing architecture in modern cities.
The list goes on and on and everyone’s list will be a little different. I think, though, something on every travelers list of places to visit will be castles. There is something inherently appealing about them. Maybe it’s the fact that many are in idyllic settings; high on hilltops overlooking forests or river valleys. It could be because there is so much history we can learn about the people who called these places home and the battles fought to protect their surrounding lands. Whatever the reason, something steers a traveler’s compass towards castles. But our fascination with them is where their similarities end.
Over three months I’ve visited many castles while traveling in Europe and one thing I’ve learned: all castles are not equal. Some are dark, others very colorful. Some near present day city centers, others much more secluded. Some look the part of a picturesque Disney fairy tale castle, some aren’t so beautiful, and others, just plain ugly. Some overlook small rural communities, other urban sprawls. Many show the scars of countless battles, some never saw one. And some, after centuries of life, lie in ruins, while others stay well-preserved.
On my way to Scotland, and with this castle dichotomy in mind, I faced a decision. Edinburgh Castle or Stirling Castle? They are the two most popular castle visits in Scotland and located near each other. Some say Edinburgh is best to visit, others Stirling. Since I’d be staying in both cities I decided to compare the two myself and tell you all what I found, then, if you find yourself traveling in Scotland, you can decide for yourself where to spend your vacation dollars.
I visited Stirling first and from the cemetery that sits next to the castle there is a decent view of the hilltop it sits on. From this vantage point there are two big buildings and part of a castle wall visible. ‘That’s it?’, I thought. There didn’t seem to be a lot going on, but when walking towards the entrance gate you’ll realize there are several buildings that make up this castle. They range from small to very big and were built by many generations of royalty that ruled there. I rented the audio guide while touring the castle grounds and went to every room in every building that was open. After spending about 17 pounds for my day at the castle (about $25 USD) I wanted to get my monies worth! Also, I wanted to have the full experience so I could compare Stirling to Edinburgh. The audio guide was very informational and interesting. It told the story of each building on the castle grounds, the people who built them, as well as a lot of Scottish history.
Like Stirling, Edinburgh Castle is not a typical Disney-esque looking castle with one enormous main building complete with towers and battlements that dominates a landscape and is surrounded by wall and moat. It too has several buildings that were built over centuries. Also like in Stirling, to get the full castle experience, I rented the audio guide and went into to every area that was open. Again, the audio guide was filled with great historical information about the castle and interesting facts about the kings and queens who ruled there.
Below is my comparison of Stirling and Edinburgh Castles.
- Stirling – It is interesting to walk through all the buildings including the Royal Palace (which recreates how it would have looked in the mid 16th century), the Great Hall that is the largest ever in Scotland, and the Chapel Royal (built-in 1594 for the baptism of James VI’s first son). The complex also houses the Regimental Museum which tracks the history of the Argyll and Sutherlands British Army regiment, formed in 1881 and based at Stirling Castle, the Stirling Heads Gallery which showcases much of the carvings from around the castle complex, and the Castle Exhibition that shows a timeline and information of all monarchs that shaped the castle. To me it felt more like a museum then an old castle.
- Edinburgh – Like at Stirling, the Edinburgh Castle has Regimental Museums, a Great Hall, an old chapel, and a Royal Palace. It also has some interesting extras like the Scottish Crown Jewels, the Scottish National War Memorial, and Prisons of War. There is also the One O’clock Gun, which supposedly fires nearly every day at precisely 13:00 since its inception in 1861 as a time signal for ships in the Firth of Forth. I say supposedly because of the 8 days I was in Edinburgh I did not hear the One O’clock Gun once.
- Stirling – There are many buildings in the complex all built at different time periods and in a mix of building styles. The visual differences of the buildings make going through the castle ‘village’ an interesting and beautiful walk. My favorites are the Great Hall, the Chapel Royal interior and the old gatehouse.
- Edinburgh – Again, many buildings make up the castle grounds. Unlike Stirling Castle, there’s not as great a visual contrast in building styles. I’m sure someone more versed in architectural styles from these periods would see dozens of differences from building to building but to a layman they seem similar. It is still a beautiful setting for sure; there just aren’t the striking variances you see at Stirling.
- Stirling – The castle sits on a hill on the edge of Stirling. There is a good view of the city and the River Forth. Looking east you can see The National Wallace Monument and the Ochil Hills a few miles away.
- Edinburgh – The castle sits on a high point in the center of Edinburgh, thus has a great view in all directions. This includes a view of Arthur’s Seat to the east and the Firth of Forth to the north.
- Stirling – 14 pounds + 3 for the audio guide
- Edinburgh – 16 + 3
Advantage, push (I think they’re both overpriced, just like seemingly everything in the UK)
So, two votes to one for Edinburgh Castle over Stirling Castle on my personal comparison. Both were very interesting and there’s a lot of information to soak in. History buffs would have a great day just reading information and listening to the audio guide at either site. I think they are definitely worth visiting but if you’re in the area pick one. Going to both is slightly redundant.
And there is one last reason I have Edinburgh Castle edging out Stirling Castle, and its something I haven’t seen in person. It has nothing to do with a daily visit to the castle but is something I personally want to witness sometime. It hosts the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo every August. The tattoo is a series of performances that concludes after two weeks with the Lone Piper playing high atop the castle ramparts. Unfortunately I can’t attend this year but some year I will be there!